A version of this article first appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine, one of the world’s longest-running tennis publications. For more in-depth features, news and analysis, you can subscribe now.
Men’s tennis in China has been a myth for many years,” bemoaned Chinese journalist Zhang Bendou in early 2022.
“China can send rockets to space, among many other great things, but we just haven’t been able to produce even one ATP top-100 player. We have been waiting too long.”
But that wait is now over, with an exciting trio helping China emerge as a new force in the men’s game.
Zhang Zhizhen, who was China’s top-ranked man at world No.305 in April 2022, became the first to break into the elite top 100. The 26-year-old achieved that major milestone in October 2022.
Zhang’s ranking skyrocketed after winning 36 of his 46 matches and reaching four ATP Challenger finals in the preceding four months.
“It is a small step, but it’s also a big step for Chinese men’s tennis,” Zhang at the time acknowledged of his top100 breakthrough.
Zhang has since been joined – and overtaken – inside the top 100 by compatriot Wu Yibing.
However, with his run this week to the last eight in Madrid – he became the first Chinese player to ever reach an ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal – he has shot up to 66th in the live rankings, closing the gap on his countryman, who is projected to rise to 54th in next week's list.
Wu made history of his own at an ATP 250 tournament at Dallas in February, becoming the first Chinese man in 28 years to reach a tour-level semifinal.
The 23-year-old did not stop there, beating world No.8 Taylor Fritz to become the first Chinese man to record a top-10 win and advance to a tour-level final.
Wu capped an incredible run by saving four championship points to overcome John Isner 6-7(4) 7-6(3) 7-6(12) in an absorbing final and clinch his maiden ATP title.
“It’s not only about winning the title,” Wu enthused. “It’s more about me personally making history, also for the country. It’s huge for the next generation.”
This propelled Wu’s ranking to world No.58, then an all-time high for a Chinese man.
Zhang and Wu’s success is already inspiring their peers, including 18-year-old Shang Juncheng.
Shang qualified at Australian Open 2023 to join Zhang and Wu, a wildcard recipient, in the main draw. This marked the first time in the Open era that three Chinese men had contested a Grand Slam singles main draw.
“Those two guys, they are definitely my inspiration,” admitted Shang, who was 17 at the time and the youngest contender in the draw.
“They’ve been on tour longer than me and are way more experienced than me.”
Yet Shang beat them both to another major milestone, becoming the first Chinese player to win an Australian Open main-draw men’s singles match in the Open era.
“It’s huge for Chinese men's tennis,” Shang beamed after his breakout performance at Melbourne Park. “You know, we have had really good players from the women's side, but not really big names in the men's.
“So, I think it’s very lucky that I'm part of it … Hopefully we can do something big in the future.”
Zhang’s father, WeiHua, was a soccer player and his mother, Qin Wei, was a competitive shooter. He started playing tennis as a four-year-old as his father thought he was too small to play soccer.
Now standing at 193 centimetres, Zhang is proving quite the athlete himself and has made steady progress since turning professional in 2012.
He earned a Grand Slam main-draw debut in 2021, successfully qualifying at Wimbledon. This made him the first Chinese man to compete in the tournament’s main draw in the Open era.
Zhang also qualified at the US Open in 2022 and broke into the world’s top 100 after reaching an ATP quarterfinal (his second at this level and first in five years) at Naples in October.
“It is a tough road to be top 100,” Zhang admitted.
Zhang is now determined to make his mark on the Grand Slam stage. He has come close – losing in five sets in each of his three major main-draw appearances so far. This includes being edged out in a fifth-set tiebreak by eventual quarterfinalist Ben Shelton at Australian Open 2023.
Zhang’s nickname is ZZZ. “My full name is too hard for people to say,” Zhang explained.
“It became ZZZ because there are three Zs in my name. It is much easier for people outside of China to say. And it sounds cool. Triple-Z. I also like to sleep, so 'ZZZ' is perfect.
Wu was a record-breaking junior, becoming the first Chinese male to win a Grand Slam title with his victories in the US Open 2017 boys’ singles and doubles competitions.
This propelled him to world No.1 in the junior rankings and he looked destined to rise quickly in the professional ranks when he claimed his first ATP Challenger title a week later.
However, a horror run with injuries meant Wu was unable to compete on tour between March 2019 and January 2022.
Wu returned to win three ATP Challenger titles in 2022, helping his ranking soar from outside the world’s top 1800 in March to No.117 by season-end. A highlight was his performance at the US Open, where he won five matches to advance to the third round as a qualifier.
This made Wu the first Chinese man in 63 years to win a Grand Slam singles main-draw match and the first to reach the US Open third round.
Wu, who initially began playing tennis as a six-year-old to lose weight, broke into the world’s top 100 (at world No.97) in February 2023 and won his first ATP title that week.
He is now the highest-ranked Chinese man in history, having peaked at world No.55 in April, two months after beating four top 40-ranked opponents to be crowned champion in Dallas.
“I need to keep going, keep my body healthy and I’m sure there’s more to come,” said Wu, whose father Kang was a professional boxer.
Shang was introduced to tennis as a six-year-old by his sports-loving parents. His father, Yi, played professional football and his mother, Na, was a world champion in table tennis.
“They got me into tennis and I really loved it, especially the competition,” Shang said.
A 12-year-old Shang, who is known as Jerry, and his father relocated to America to further his game and by 16, he was the world’s top-ranked junior.
Shang has made an impressive transition to the professional ranks, winning five singles titles so far. This includes his maiden ATP Challenger title, which he claimed in August 2022.
He created history at Indian Wells last season, becoming the first Chinese player to qualify at an ATP Masters 1000 tournament.
Shang also qualified in his Grand Slam-level debut at Australian Open 2023, defeating three higher-ranked opponents to earn his place in the draw. The then 17-year-old beat world No.74 Oscar Otte in four sets in the opening round at Melbourne Park, before bowing out to an impressed world No.17 Frances Tiafoe.
“That dude is special. He is going to be a problem for a long time,” Tiafoe noted. “He is 17 playing like that, hitting the ball like that, moving like that. Whew, the boy is a problem. That boy is going to be mean.”
The left-handed Shang, who is now 18, peaked at a career-high ranking of No.165 in February. His coach is Dante Bottini, who has previously guided Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.